The other day I went out to walk my dog around the neighborhood, as I am wont to do. It being early April the signs of incipient spring were very apparent: crocuses, buds, warmer air, the last piles of snow under the shrubberies gone, landscaping trucks dotting the roads, and more people out walking. One of the nice things about walking is not just where the legs take you, but where the mind goes. In this case I was thinking about my college days at a school in a highly urban environment, and the prodigious amount of walking I did. Curious about what more than 30 years, decades of which I have lived in the suburbs with a car have done to my walking habits, and thinking I might like to get some baseline data to possibly try increasing what I suspect is less than ideal, I attached a pedometer to my waistband and took a look at where I was.
I seem to be averaging about 4,000 steps. This does not include time teaching or doing yoga or other classes. It could be worse, but I definitely could be doing more. I used to write papers in my head while walking in and out through the city. I found the exercise seemed to help me focus and understand the material better. (Which was good because Wittgenstein and Kant are challenging to wrap yourself around even at your most highly caffeinated)
However, I was remembering a study about walking and the Amish from the ACSM, some years ago. I looked it up and discovered in this study they found the men averaged over 14,000 and the men over 18,000 steps per day. One of the interesting things about the Amish that the study looked at is that in spite of a diet extremely high in gravy, carbs, meat, and desserts only 4% of the Amish were obese. While I think few people in modern society are going to spend the day ploughing the fields, and shooing our own horses, we clearly have come a long way from how we lived three hundred years ago. I think it unlikely I am going to get near 14,000 steps, for one thing, this does not include the time I am teaching.
Remember the old commercial with the person who slaps the side of their own head and says “I could have had a V8!”. Could it be as simple as this, just tell people to walk more steps, increase activity, and they will all loose weight, get more fit, and have less lifestyle related ailments? Pretty simplistic. And it hasn't worked so far.
The other thing that struck me on rereading this study is to wonder if it is a straightforward question of 'they eat more, but exercise more', but something about the diet that matters. They are eating gravy.... but it is homemade. They are eating pies... but they are not filled with artificial ingredients. I am thinking about the research I was just reading someone is doing on diet and motivation. They were finding that rats fed on junk food were much less motivated to work hard on various tasks. Add that to the growing body of research on the variety of ways eating processed food makes it more likely to gain weight and harder to loose it once it is gained. If it carries with it the bonus of making us less able to fight against it once we've eaten in well, as my mom used to say “good gravy”.
I am thinking about a recent article in the fitness professional journal Idea Today. It was on the association of diet and stress. Clearly in addition to what we eat, and how much activity we do, we need to manage our stress. One answer to that is to do activities like yoga that provide tools to manage stress. But there is something beyond this we need to think about.
People in the fitness industry spend a lot of time thinking about how to make people more fit. One thing, though, is that a lot of the conversations are about using two tools: education and motivation. The thing is, that is like pulling out a hammer and a level and trying to build a bookshelf. Both of those tools are necessary, but they are not sufficient. Yes, we need to address activity, nutrition, and stress management. But we need people to be able to use these tools.
I can provide a student or client with information about walking. I can teach them about target heart rate, about stretching, about warm ups, about how to prepare for different types of weather and physical conditions. I can send them posters with a big eyed dog holding a leash with the caption “Think of him as an exercise machine with legs”, or pictures of sunrises with short statements about believing in yourself. I can take measurements and data, and provide lots of carrots and sticks. But what if that person lives in a place where it is dangerous to walk the streets? What if they are a single parent with two jobs, and an elderly parent with alzheimer's who needs care and attention? What if they cannot afford personal training, or passes for yoga?
I can tell them how wonderful it is to eat organic. To make their own food, and, like the Amish, avoid processed junk. But what if they live in a neighborhood without a grocery, and they are walking to the corner store where the only fruit is very expensive and low quality? What if they cannot afford to pay for organic? What if everyone around them eats fast food?
Education and motivation are important, but equally important are addressing the social barriers to health and fitness. Of course, doing these things take time, and do not tend to bring in much money, so what is wonderful is how many people in the industry serve as well as market. Some outreach is an extension of what we do best: educate and motivate. I have a friend who took a job with social services, to bring yoga to the homes of people who would not otherwise have had it. I know a couple of people who have worked with prison populations. Most of us do something. Most of the yoga studios I know offer 'community' classes for free or small donations. Many of us choose to teach at places that offer financial aid for families that otherwise would never be able to afford these services.
These acts of karma (as we say in yoga) are important, but by themselves are not enough. Imagine a giant hole, with people on one side putting in handfulls of pebbles, and on the other side a flow of mud eroding the hole ever bigger. What we need are both as many people as possible putting in pebbles, but also tools that will make it easier to get a lot of pebbles in at once. We need organizations like the Y, or the JCC opening safe community centers for youth to meet and exercise in urban centers. We need organizations like meals on wheels, and local senior centers to provide opportunity for decent meals, silver sneakers classes, and social engagement. We need physicians like a friend of ours who travels regularly to Guatamala to provide basic medical services to those who would otherwise never have it. We need Habitat for Humanity providing decent housing where the kids can ride their bikes, and play outside. We need grocery stores to serve those neighborhoods where people most need them, and not just those where they make the greatest profits. We need farmers to partner with our schools to build vegetable gardens, to teach the young so they can grow their own healthy foods... even a few herbs in a window box... and supplement the school lunches. We need to fund research that will promote our understanding of health and fitness, and motivation, and addiction and recovery. I read something recently about a company that is creating a coating for walking paths that reflects lights, thus making safer paths and reducing light pollution (http://www.gizmag.com/pathway-sprayon-coating/29468/) We need to spend the time to educate ourselves on how our government works and put people in that government who will spend our tax money and use our resources to promote policies that work to our greater health and fitness. Most of all we need to remember what Marley said in 'A Christmas Carol'; “Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The deals of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”